New NASA app allows public to explore Vesta
On Tuesday, March 31, NASA announced the release of Vesta Trek, a free web-based application that provides detailed visualizations of Vesta – one of the largest asteroids in the Solar System. The application uses data acquired by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft during its exploration of Vesta from July 2011 to September 2012. Vesta Trek provides a number of user-friendly tools that citizen scientists and students can use to study the asteroid’s features.
The Vesta Trek application features include interactive maps that allow users to overlay a number of data sets including topography, mineralogy, geology, and abundant elements; it also includes analysis tools for measuring the diameters, heights, and depths of the asteroid’s surface features. Other features include 3-D printer-exportable topography that enables users to make physical models of the asteroid’s surface and standard keyboard controls to maneuver a first-person visualization of “flying” across the surface of Vesta.
NASA’s Lunar Mapping and Modeling Project (LMMP) developed the Vesta Trek mission. LMPP, which is managed by NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI), provides mission planners, lunar scientists, and the public with visual data and analysis tools for the Moon. Vesta Trek is LMMP’s first project for a mission beyond the Moon. LMMP is currently developing visualization tools for other worlds in the Solar System.
“There’s nothing like seeing something with your own eyes, but these types of detailed data-visualizations are the next best thing,” said Kristen Erickson, Director, Science Engagement and Partnerships at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC. “We’re thrilled to release Vesta Trek to the citizen science community and the public, not only as a scientific tool, but as a portal to an immersive experience that, just by the nature of it, will allow a deeper understanding of Vesta and asteroids in general.”
The Dawn spacecraft launched from Launch Complex 17B at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Sept. 27, 2007. The spacecraft, equipped with an ion engine, arrived at Vesta on July 16, 2011, and subsequently departed for Ceres, its second target, on September 5, 2012. Dawn began orbiting Ceres on March 6, 2015. Dawn is the first spacecraft to orbit a body in the main asteroid belt and also the first spacecraft to orbit two targets.
Dawn’s payload of scientific instruments consists of two cameras, a visible and infrared mapping spectrometer to reveal the surface minerals, and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer to determine the elements that make up the outer parts of the asteroids. As noted, the spacecraft has an ion propulsion system and is powered by two large solar panels that stretch 65 feet (19.8 meters) from tip to tip.
By studying two very different bodies within the asteroid belt, the Dawn mission team hopes to find the answers to many questions about the formation and early history of the Solar System. LLMP will continue to work closely with the Dawn mission as the spacecraft conducts its measurements and mapping of Ceres.
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Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.